Greece was fighting to avoid economic disaster tonight amid political stalemate, nationwide strikes and controversial claims that the country could leave the eurozone without triggering a single currency crisis.
As increasingly fraught negotiations went on in Athens over more austerity measures being demanded by Brussels, European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes raised the temperature by insisting that the eurozone would not collapse if Greece withdrew.
As the Commission went into damage limitation, UK Independence Party MEP Godfrey Bloom seized on the Dutch Commissioner’s insinuation that “a man overboard” would be no great loss.
Dutch Commissioner Kroes told Dutch newspaper Volkskrant: “It’s always said that if you let one country get out, or ask it to get out, then the whole structure collapses. But that’s simply not true.”
Mr Bloom responded: “Finally reality is beginning to dawn in Brussels and across Europe...one of the most senior European Commissioners has announced that ’it is simply not true’ that if Greece were to leave the euro there would be disaster across the European financial system. This is what we in UKIP have been saying for months, years even.”
He went on: “The best way to help Greece, and by extension ourselves, is if we give them a helping hand down and out from the eurozone, rather than spending billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money building a golden prison.
“Our Government has been playing along to the doomster dialogue in order to justify its throwing money at the lost cause. It would do better listening to the Commissioner and wiser heads and refuse point blank to give any more to the bailouts, whether through increased International Monetary Fund contributions or otherwise.
“No more British money should be spent making a bad situation worse.”
A Commission spokesman in Brussels denied that Dutch Commissioner Kroes had broken ranks, insisting: "The Commission line is very clear: we want Greece to remain a member of the euro area.
“Commissioner Kroes has not asked for Greece to leave the euro area, neither has she said it is a likely scenario. We consider that interview given by Commissioner Kroes is not in contradiction with the Commission line.”
Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso went out of his way to reaffirm support for Greece: “The Commission has made it clear from the beginning that it is very important not only for Greece but the euro and for the European project to keep Greece in the euro.”
He said all eyes were now on Athens and it was up to the Greek political parties to “make a commitment” to back tougher austerity measures “so that we can keep Greece in the euro area”.
Without a deal soon, a second bailout for Greece worth €130bn will be in doubt, risking Greek default on debt repayments due in late March.
But the Greek government is facing growing strikes, which are firmly backed by the European Trade Union Confederation:
“The new austerity package being discussed to avoid a default by Greece is unacceptable,” said ETUC General Secretary Bernadette Segol.
“Greek workers and citizens have been pushed to the limit. Successive austerity plans have plunged the country ever deeper into crisis.
“The new measures being considered are simply not defensible: reduction in the minimum wage, cuts in supplementary pensions and immediate job cuts in the public service.
“Labour law is being flouted and men and women are being crushed in the process. We warn all those who are putting pressure on Greece or justifying such pressure: workers cannot take any more.”
Dutch Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager, in a statement countering the claims of Commissioner Kroes, warned that the austerity measures were vital:
“A chaotic situation in Greece could hurt all of us and that’s why we are doing all we can to keep Greece in the eurozone – but it is essential the Greek leaders act now and implement all necessary measures.”